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Ecuador's Highlands Exploration: Culture, National Parks, Haciendas.

From sips of Ecuador's typical drink, canelazo, and glimpses of the country's highest volcanoes to colorful native market towns, historic haciendas and equator-straddling National Parks, the small South American country of Ecuador is a holiday adventure. Before or after a trip to the country's iconically-familiar Galapagos Islands, you won't regret assigning equal time to explore the historic, nature-rich Highlands, defined and refined by the volcanic Andes Mountains.

Cotopaxi National Park in Ecuador is a Highlands travel experience.

by Alison Gardner, Editor
Travel with a Challenge

In the Andes, the most frequently visited national park is Cotopaxi with its magnificent, cone-shaped volcano, the tallest active volcano in the world. Metropolitan Touring

Having taken my Acetazolamide pills the previous two days to avoid the possibility of altitude sickness, I flew into Quito from Miami in January with an open mind as to the sort of landscape or temperatures to expect when visiting the world's second highest capital (after La Paz, Bolivia). In some people, going from sea level Miami to Quito (2,850 meters/9,350 feet high) in a few hours causes excruciating headaches, dizziness and nausea for two or three days. Not wanting to waste a moment of my time exploring Ecuador's Highlands, I was not prepared to take the risk that I might be one of those people.

San Francisco de Quito (its official name) occupies a spectacular location, nestled in a narrow valley framed on both sides by the dramatic volcanic peaks of the Andes Mountains marching north and south like a spine to the country. To the west is the tropical coast; to the east is the Ecuadorian Amazon. From the windows of my 14th floor room at the Hilton Colon Quito and from its 17th floor breakfast room on the opposite side, snow-sprinkled mountains are countable everywhere while smaller smoothly-weathered hills within the cityscape itself speak of an ancient volcanic heritage just as eloquently. The geographic constraints of two parallel mountain ranges have determined that Quito's population growth spurt in recent decades makes the city a long skinny transit, stretching more than 30 miles.

The Spanish colonial heart of Quito is worthy of several days exploration to discover why it was selected in 1978 as the first city for UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status. Conquistadors made it the centerpiece of artistic achievement in the New World with cathedrals, monasteries, palaces and plazas among the architectural and artistic treasures in good repair today. Quito's nickname, the Florence of the Americas, is well-deserved.

It is a delight to stroll the narrow cobbled streets and investigate colorful craft shops and impressive modern art galleries, though a hat and sunblock are a necessity against the intense ultra-violet rays at this sunny high altitude. Even the locals can be seen with parasols or holding newspapers over their heads during the most intense sunlight periods. To meet some of the friendly, polite residents of Quito, stop for a snack in a pocket-sized local eatery, and introduce yourself to a glass of canelazo, a delicious hot drink of the Andes consisting of cinnamon tea, fruit juices, and alcohol made from sugar cane.

La Compania de Jesus Church is the most beautiful structure in Quito, Ecuador.
La Compañia de Jesús Church and Jesuit College is the most spectacular edifice in Quito, on the UN list of the 100 most important architectural constructions in the world. Metropolitan Touring

Among the 40 inexpensive or free museums in Quito's Historic Quarter, a visit to the must-see pre-Inca and Inca collections of the Banco Central Museum reveals a wealth of impressively-displayed artefacts and stories. These speak to thousands of years of peaceful coexistence between indigenous tribes, equality of the sexes and sophisticated living among an estimated two to three million Highlanders before the militaristic Inca marched north from Peru. The invaders expected instant absorption of earlier civilizations into their own artistic, architectural and religious practices as well as strict use of the Inca Quechua language, the most widely spoken native language to this day. In a massive building frenzy that spanned only 75 years of Inca occupation (1460 to 1534) throughout the Ecuadorian Highlands, they left a significant visible legacy, including wide stone highways, before their rule was extinguished by the equally-domineering Spanish.

The Inca fortress and temple site of Ingapirca is in the south of the Ecuador Highlands.
Inca fortress and temple site of Ingapirca is the largest Inca site in Ecuador. Without mortar, massive perfectly-chiseled stones fit together seamlessly.
Alison Gardner

Ecuador's Andes Highlands offer culture, unique national parks and historic hacienda vacations.
Ecuador has no marked seasons because it straddles the Earth's equator, after which the country is named. However, it has four distinct climatic zones: the Andean Highlands, the coastal tropical plain, the Amazon basin and the Galapagos Islands.

El Cajas National Park, Ecuador.This small country, only 0.17% of the planet's surface, holds first place in the world for number of species per area. Globally, Ecuador is among the 17 countries of highest flora and fauna diversity. There are 25,000 species of plants (all of North America has only 17,000), and 3,800 species of vertebrates including mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish. It possesses 11% of the world's species of land vertebrates.

There are 14 ethnic groups in Ecuador each of which retain their distinctive heritage, traditions, dress, language and handicrafts. Visitors may find a colorful Indian market for every day of the week, mainly in the Highlands.

Quito, Ecuador's capital, and the city of Cuenca to the south have well-preserved Spanish colonial city cores named as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites. There are also three UNESCO Natural Heritage Sites, two in the Galapagos and one in the Central Andes region. Twenty-six National Parks, Biological Reserves and Wildlife Reserves are located throughout the country.
Above right: The weathered landscape of El Cajas National Park supports 250 small lakes and ponds making it an important water source for people, birds, animals and plants in a harsh environment. Alison Gardner

Exploring the Countryside with Ecuador Highlands travel.

I put my exploration of Ecuador's Highlands in the expert hands of Metropolitan Touring, whose itinerary planners and guides have been helping visitors experience the essence of its home country since 1953. With my personal guide, Florencia Chavez, we drove north along the Pan American Highway through fertile farmlands and lush landscapes -- amazing to see such agricultural productivity at a 10,000 foot elevation -- to spend a morning around the indigenous market town of Otavalo, famous for its fine bright-colored textiles exported worldwide and for its bustling vegetable and fruit markets.

A short drive from Otavalo, we sampled a multi-course traditional meal at Mindala, an impressive new center for "Andean knowledge and traditional art" established by brother and sister, Elena and Cezar Cotacachi. Mother and expert chef, Lucila, as well as father Rafael, a lifelong weaver, made our visit truly a family affair as well as an educational affair. With Elena, dressed in her traditional costume, we even toured the large edible garden behind the center where organic food crops and herbal medicine plants are given equal importance. As a small child, Rafael learned to dye sheep wool different colors and to do backstrap weaving which today he demonstrates with the expertise and ease of a lifetime.

Backstrap weaving demonstration at Mindala Center for indigenous arts and crafts, Otavalo, Ecuador.
Backstrap weaving expert, Rafael Cotacachi, demonstrates his techniques at the Mindala Center for indigenous arts and crafts. Alison Gardner
After one more night in Quito, Florencia and I drove south along the Pan American Highway to spend a few days exploring the Avenue of the Volcanoes, a 325 kilometer-long valley between Quito and Riobamba. Either side, massive stand-alone volcanoes provide amazing contrast to the green equatorial lushness of the rest of the landscape. Just 1.5 hours from the capital, Cotopaxi National Park is a vast landscape of snow-capped volcanoes, wild horse herds and bird-watching lagoons. For the more rugged traveler and experienced climber, it is even possible to camp in refuge huts to which you may drive on the Cotopaxi mountainside and climb to the 5,897 meter/19,347 foot peak. Imagine the view!

However, being inclined toward a significantly higher comfort level, we continued on in search of some restored Spanish hacienda properties, a legacy of centuries of colonial prosperity and elegant living. Hacienda San Agustín de Callo is a fine example, restored and managed with passion by Migñon Plaza whose grandfather was twice President of Ecuador and whose uncle also served as President. Built on the site of an Inca palace, Migñon takes particular pride in having exposed the walls that illustrate the distinctive rock architecture of the Inca. There are no two rooms alike, and there are enough activity programs to make the hacienda a home-base for several days. Metropolitan Touring can arrange for a variety of hacienda stays, each one distinctive and family-owned.

Enjoy Ecuador hacienda vacations like Hacienda San Agustin de Callo.
Overlooking Cotopaxi, the meticulously-restored Hacienda San Agustin de Callo is one of the finest historic accommodations along the Avenue of the Volcanoes. Alison Gardner
A highlight among highlights of my Highlands exploration was a visit to an indigenous llama commune, a community success story that in a few short years has dramatically benefited women and children (see photo caption below). Commune Palacio Real welcomes visitors with an education center and traditional foods eatery, where the ladies talk about the importance of llamas to Indian culture and give guided walks (with llamas) along property trails. Another inspiring project around the town of Guamote is Inti Sisa, a non-profit educational foundation that, among other things, trains locals as homestay hosts and as guides for horseback rides, hiking and trekking in the area. International volunteers are encouraged to assist with a wide variety of training programs and to help run an efficient visitor hostel with both private en suite rooms ($14) and dormitory accommodation ($10). Founded by a Belgian teacher in the 1990s, Inti Sisa serves 155 small communities, 85% of which are indigenous.
Llama commune: Ecuador's Andes Highlands offer culture, unique national parks and historic hacienda vacations.
Llama commune: Ecuador's Andes Highlands offer culture, unique national parks and historic hacienda vacations.
Starting with 30 llamas a few years ago, Commune Palacio Real is a community self-reliance success story with 80 indi-genous families now owning and caring for seven llamas per family. Do the math on that one and you will agree!
Alison Gardner
Article about the southern Highlands of Ecuador including Ingapirca and the city of Cuenca.

Emerging from the Avenue of the Volcanoes, Florencia's expert guiding was at an end. But I still had more to see. We bid farewell as friends while she handed me over to Gustavo Jimenez, a former veterinarian, now guiding with Metropolitan Touring for the past decade. As I journeyed further south down the center of Ecuador, I quickly discovered that Gustavo is on fire with enthusiasm for his part of Ecuador with full and entertaining knowledge of its history and culture. We spent some hours exploring the massive archaeological site of Ingapirca, the most northerly fortress and religious center remaining from Inca times. Standing atop this mountaintop site with sweeping views of valleys below, Ingapirca (meaning Wall of the Inca) clearly illustrates the sheer power of this short-lived occupation force, complete with stone highways to quickly dispatch orders and soldiers to strategic points in the northern empire.

During much of our time together, Gustavo played host around his home city of Cuenca, named by National Geographic Traveler magazine in 2008 as having one of the most beautiful historic centers in the world. The third largest city in Ecuador, its climate is one of eternal spring, a Spanish colonial gem with a dynamic reputation as a cultural capital and host to both modern and traditional art festivals. Many international people live here, and it has seven universities as well as plenty of Spanish language schools, many of which cater to the older student.

Hotel Santa Lucia in Cuenca is perfect for Ecuador Andes senior travel holidays.
Cuenca's Hotel Santa Lucia offers a slice of mid-nineteenth century Spanish colonial lifestyle with first class rooms and exceptional dining in the central courtyard. Alison Gardner

Cuenca is also home to the Panama hat which I was surprised to learn is an Ecuadorian invention for which this southern region remains the largest producer in the world. There used to be 30 companies in the area producing them, now there are 12, but the fashion continues to create a demand for a dazzling array of designs for men and women worldwide and for local Indians who invented and continue to wear such hats as part of their daily attire. How did Panama become the name for this fashionable, finely-woven hat? Only because international workers associated with the building of the Panama Canal bought hats from Ecuadorians who brought them to Panama for sale. "Where did you get that hat?" envious friends would ask when North Americans and European canal builders took them home. Naturally the answer was Panama, and the name stuck even though Panama has never produced them.

In Cuenca, Panama hat maker, Homero Ortega & Hijos offers exceptional educational tours, Monday to Saturday, where you may learn about the history and manufacture of the distinctive headgear whose prices range from $30 to $1,000 apiece depending on the fineness of the weave and the originality of the design for both men and women. While we were touring, Gustavo got a phone call from a couple now back in Europe. Upset, they reported that the $500 each Panama hats they had purchased with him in Cuenca had been stolen in a European airport. The couple asked if he would please buy them replacements exactly the same! I also stopped in at one of many hole-in-the-wall Panama hat restorer shops. Local people usually have their hats cleaned, re-bleached and re-blocked twice a year at a cost of $12.50 each time. Looking smart at the marketplace is important!

Panama hat making is a tradition in Cuenca, Ecuador.
Finely-woven Panama hats are a specialty of the Cuenca area, worn by local natives and exported throughout the world. Metropolitan Touring

Our final stop an hour out of Cuenca before descending to the coast and Guayaquil was El Cajas National Park, a minimum 10,000 feet in altitude. The 70,000-acre park has a particular appeal to hikers and trekkers especially during the dry season between August and January, as well as to those with a fascination for unusual plants and birds. In common with many arid areas, this older, more eroded part of the Andes appears stark and lifeless until you pay close attention. It is definitely not so!

I found Ecuador's Highlands exhilarating and full of surprises, but the time had come to head for the humid tropical coast city of Guayaquil and then on to the Galapagos Islands by plane, 600 miles offshore. Plenty more volcanoes to come, this time encountered at sea level. No need to think about those altitude sickness pills until my next high altitude adventure.

Follow Up Facts: Ecuador's Highlands Exploration: Culture, National Parks, Haciendas.
Ecuador's population is 13.5 million, most of whom are mestizo or mixed blood. About 20% are purely indigenous people living in the Highlands and the Amazon. Ecuador uses the American dollar as its standard currency.

Young indigenous Ecuadorian girl with sheep.Metropolitan Touring is an Ecuador-based tour operator that offers many set tours and customized itineraries throughout the Mainland. The company also runs ground operations in Ecuador, Peru, Argentina and Chile, owns and operates three fine expeditionary eco-cruise vessels in the Galápagos Islands, and offers land-based Galapagos tour packages at their Finch Bay Eco Hotel on Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos. Metropolitan Touring is a respected champion of the region's natural and cultural heritage, spear-heading, among many other things, recycling and coastal cleaning initiatives in the Galápagos Islands and always striving to leave a positive environmental footprint in the communities it works with.

Altitude sickness pills are generally taken for two days before arriving at high altitude and three days after arrival. To decide whether such medication is a good idea for any individual, check this excellent information.

Recommended Reference: The Rough Guide to Ecuador (5th edition, September 2013).
Right: A mini-Highlands shepherdess learns her family responsibilities early.
Metropolitan Touring

Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com. Email: alison@travelwithachallenge.com.


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